Remember all the excitement five years ago amongst Husker fans who follow recruiting? After years of subpar rated recruiting classes, Bill Callahan launched Husker football into the stratosphere of college recruiting. Tom Lemming of ESPN ranked them "No. 1, without a doubt." Rivals.com ranked the Huskers' signees fifth. Steve Pederson beamed, saying that Callahan "exceeded even my expectations." Husker play-by-play announcer Jim Rose proclaimed Nebraska was well on it's way towards it's next national championship.
So how did that class turn out? Simply put, they didn't come close to meeting those lofty accolades. But not meeting those accolades doesn't mean it was a bad class either ... just overrated. Or perhaps more accurately: overhyped.
Take that Rivals rating for example: Nebraska was fifth in total points, but only twelfth in terms of the average stars per prospect. One of the reasons the Huskers were rated so highly is the size of the class. Nebraska signed 30; most other schools signed 20 to 25. Still, a top fifteen class is still pretty good, correct?If you believe in the rankings, yes. And there, the rankings turned out to be a mixed bag. Some players turned out as advertised, or even better. Others were disappointments. And an exceptionally large number left after a year or two in Lincoln. You see, the recruiting services look at the physical aspects of the high school player and translate those skills to the next level. They don't look at the mental aspects: how will he adjust to the college game, and what kind of character does he bring to college. What's his work ethic like, and how will he adjust to competing against people with just as much or even more talent than he has?
Take Harrison Beck, the strong armed blue-chip quarterback from Florida, who was going to be the foundation for the new West Coast Offense at Nebraska. Some fans expected him to start immediately. Instead, Nebraska tried to redshirt him as a freshman, but he was pressed into service late in the season after Zac Taylor suffered a concussion. Beck shed his redshirt, and showed off his strong arm by firing an incompletion into the west stands. In two games as a freshman, Beck threw ten passes, completing only one of them. In August 2006, Beck became upset with his spot on the depth chart, drove home to Florida, and transferred to North Carolina State. His completion percentage broke 50%, but threw only four touchdown passes against 17 interceptions. He finished his college career at Division II North Alabama.
Several other players left Nebraska prematurely: four-star running back Leon Jackson, four-star offensive lineman Rodney Picou, four-star defensive end/tight end Justin Tomerlin among them. All told, 15 players from that class had disappeared two years after signing day.
Others in that class simply failed to live up to expectations. Marlon Lucky was a five-star recruit, but turned out to be a three-star player. Very versatile running back/receiver and a solid contributor, but he never emerged as the "next Adrian Peterson" as the recruiting experts hyped. Chris Brooks was a four star receiver coming out of high school, but only played sparingly in his Husker career.
The 2005 class wasn't completely devoid of productive players. Zac Taylor went onto become an all-Big XII quarterback after a shaky junior season. Steve Octavien, Zach Potter, and Cody Glenn all went on to have good careers at Nebraska, then play in the NFL. Injuries limited Zack Bowman throughout his career, but certainly made a splash with the Chicago Bears.
We also shouldn't forget #93. A four-star recruit, Ndamukong Suh blossomed under Bo and Carl Pelini's tutelage and finished fourth in the 2009 Heisman balloting this past season. He will likely be Nebraska's first #1 NFL draft pick since Irving Fryar in 1983. Suh's presence alone raises the level of the 2005 class.
So which is it? A good class or an overrated class? Probably both, as it never lived up to the 2005 hype. That doesn't make it a failure; plenty of good players to go along side a legendary player. It's not their fault that so many people expected so much more from this group.
Recruiting is an important part of college football, but it's by no means the most important. As Nebraska fans learned, you can have all the talent in the world, but if the players are physically unprepared and uncoached (like in 2007), you'll still have a bad football team. Get a team full of players who are properly trained and coached, then the sky is the limit. Matt O'Hanlon, a walk-on from Bellevue, beat out much higher rated players because he trained harder and played smarter than the blue-chippers. But combine intelligence, work ethic, proper coaching and raw physical talent, and you'll get somebody like Ndamukong Suh, a player who's legend will live on in Husker football history for years to come. That's where you get the difference makers that great football programs need.
Next week, players can sign letters of intent to play college football. National championships are not won or lost on signing day, it's merely the first baby steps in a long process that can lead to a trophy, if everything else is done properly. It wasn't done properly from 2005 through 2007, but we're seeing signs it's being done properly today. The hype and anticipation isn't what it was five years ago, but the expectations and results will likely turn out much higher.